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Mr. Brazier: I accept the hon. Lady's point, but sometimes open adoption is involved. I had a particularly bad case in my county. An adoption was very close to being arranged, but to the frustration of the social workers who put so much effort into setting it up, it had to be abandoned when the court insisted on open aspects that the potential adoptive parents, for reasons that I thoroughly sympathised with, were unwilling to accept. Even the contact to which the hon. Lady referred may, in some of the extreme cases, be deeply offensive to the adoptive parents. The court should change the balance if it makes the difference between those adoptive parents taking the child on or not.
My third point relates to the independent review, which has rightly been welcomed by all hon. Members who have spoken. As my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said, we need a more precise definition of a "qualifying determination". It is critical that the definition
I suggest that an appeal should be allowed in two cases. The first is the case of foster parents who want to adopt the child but have been refused. If they have been fostering a child for a while, an appeal should always be allowed in principle. The second is the case of a couple who have been refused a match and a match is not made with another couple. In such a case, an appeal should be triggered after a reasonable period. If four or five couples want to take on the same child and are unsuccessful, they should not all be allowed to appeal. Allowing appeals in those two cases would strike a sensible balance.
The other point that came through in our Select Committee hearings was that the first part of a review should be a rapid paper appraisal. It may turn out that one of the potential adopters is suffering from venereal disease, or, to give an example raised in the all-party group, one of the adoptive parents may have told the social worker in secret without her husband's knowledge that he is an inappropriate adopter. Such cases can be quickly dismissed without triggering an expensive and time-consuming appeal.
My fourth point is about the whole question of statistics and information. The Bill contains some welcome new provisions, which have been included since the general election partly as a result of the Select Committee hearings. However, I should like the issue to be more clearly pinned down. The sad fact is that from time to time children in care disappear, sometimes without anyone, except the social services department concerned, knowing about it. In the hideous West case, some of the children he murdered had been in care.
I welcome the new provisions that empower the Government to demand and collect statistics, and I suggest that the Secretary of State should do exactly that. I see no reason why there should not be a national database, given the IT available in this modern era and given that there are about 50,000 children in care. I am not suggesting that it should be public, like the national register.
Mr. Brazier: I am grateful for the hon. Member's endorsement, as he is experienced in these matters. Every child in care should appear in that database, along with information about how long that child has been in care. That would soon show up the scandalous proportion of children in care for whom there is still no care plan.
My fifth point brings us back to lay visitors. The Children Act 1989 is very clear. There is a statutory requirement on local authorities to appoint lay visitors for all children in care who are not regularly visited by someone. Of all the provisions in the 1989 Act, that is probably the one that is ignored most often. The vast majority of children in care have no lay visitor, including the majority of those who are not visited by anyone else.
I am grateful for the support that I have received on this issue from a number of Labour Members. The Minister has been open about taking ideas on board, and this could also be included under the clause on the gathering of statistics. I suggest to her that central Government could press local authorities to provide information on how many lay visitors they have appointed, and which children have or have not got lay visitors. Lay visitors are important, and one benefit is obvious. If a child in care wants to talk to someone outside that environment about something that they are unhappy aboutnot necessarily anything as dramatic as abuseand to have an independent ear, that is obviously a good thing. In more serious cases, in which something is going badly wrong, however, it is extremely difficult and dangerous for a professional employee to blow the whistle.
I remember one whistleblower in particulara social worker, and a very brave lady. I do not want to expose her, so I will not say which inquiry was involved. After telling us in a private hearing, very bravely, all that she had done to lift the lid off a horrible scandal, she then said quite bluntly, and almost by the by, that she was now working in a completely different capacity. She had destroyed her career with that local authority. The great thing about lay visitors is that, because they are not employees, they have nothing to lose from exposing something that is going seriously wrong. I would not be cynical enough to suggest that that might have something to do with the reluctance of many local authorities to appoint them.
My final point relates to problems in the family court advisory service. The Bill already contains two clausesclauses 97 and 98, I believerelating to that. If I am fortunate enough to be appointed to the Standing Committee, I shall argue that there is scope for extending those clauses to sort out the unfortunate muddle generated by the establishment of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. I have received a detailed brief from a children's guardian, describing the problems that are already arising from the new body's heavy- handed approach.
The matter is complicated, and I do not want to go into too much detail. I have already detained the House for a long time. Let me, however, draw attention to one extraordinary feature of my constituent's letter, which I could hardly believe. Defending its position in courtit was taken to court and, mercifully, lost the caseCAFCASS had the nerve to argue that, as a non-departmental body, it was not bound by any statements made by the Lord Chancellor's Department on its behalf.
The immediate crisis has been averted, because the courts ruled against CAFCASS. Indeed, Mr. Justice Scott Baker used some of the strongest language that I have known to be applied to a public-sector body. However, now that an "impending disaster"the judge's words, not minehas been averted, may I suggest that Ministers should ask how a public-sector body has grown so big for its boots that it could behave in such a manner, when dealing with a service as vital as the guardian service? It is vital not just to children who are adopted but to all children in careindeed, to many of the most vulnerable
Let me end where I began. This is a good Bill, and I congratulate the Government on the huge amount of work put into it. I am pleased that a Conservative Government examined the position originally, but I am disappointed that we have twice seen Bills appear and then disappear. I very much hope to serve on the Committee, and see the Bill become law during the current Session.
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): It is grand to have an opportunity to speak on Second Reading of what I think is regarded as a vital Bill by Members on both sides of the House. If it becomes law, it will constitute the first adoption legislation for a quarter of a century. I consider many measures in it to be long overdue, as well as far seeing and entirely necessary. I am also extremely pleased that the extra legislative commitments required as a result of the international situation have not led to another postponement of a Bill that will improve the lot of some of the most needy and vulnerable children in the country and, indeed, overseas.
The Bill represents yet another step in what is becoming a major Government commitment to fundamental reform and investment in the care system. Several others have confessed their involvement, and I shall now confess mine, as I have done before. I worked in the care system for 15 years before arriving here in 1997, keen to promote change in what I considered to be a deeply inadequate and often destructive way of looking after children in care. I am extremely impressed by the progress that has been made.
The Bill should be viewed not in isolation, but in conjunction with measures such as the Care Standards Act 2000, the Protection of Children Act 1999, the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 and the establishment of a children's commissioner in Wales, all of which build on the Children Act 1989. That is one of the few progressive achievements of the ghastly 18 years that we suffered before 1997. [Interruption.] I chide only a little.
As well as major legislation, we have seen, and are still seeing, considerable investment in such programmes as quality protects and in social work training. Attention has already been drawn to the vital necessity of ensuring that skilled, experienced and able people are encouraged to enter and remain in social work and perform one of the most delicate and difficult tasks in the public sector or, indeed, in any field.